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Meeting in paradise

Meeting in paradise

Conferences and exhibitions are proving big business for Bahamas tourism

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
February 16, 2019
February 16, 2019
Catherine Morris

Tourism is undergoing a renaissance in The Bahamas. Last year, the country enjoyed double-digit growth and the Lynden Pindling International Airport had its busiest season of all time–processing almost 400,000 passengers in just two months.

“Our destination overall, is becoming more visible in the international travel marketplace, resulting in greater investor confidence in our nation,” says Minister of Tourism and Aviation (MOTA) Dionisio D’Aguilar. “There is an ever- increasing desire for our destination among travel consumers; more and more people are coming to experience The Bahamas, and the majority of our guests are leaving with a good level of satisfaction about their experience.”

The minister’s enthusiasm is backed up by the numbers. “2018 has proven to be a year of increase,” he continues. “In Nassau, we have seen a 15 per cent increase in stopover visitors, air arrivals, between January and August last year, are up, when compared to last year. Visitor arrivals, air and sea combined, to the Family Islands have shown an increase of a whopping 20 per cent between January and August last year.”

To drive this growth and ensure that the success is sustainable, the ministry is capitalizing on new products, new developments and new markets.

Business travellers are a small but key component of this strategy, as MOTA officials work to lure high-net-worth visitors who come to The Bahamas to learn, network and spend.

Rebound and growth
The global business travel market is currently worth around $1.4 trillion, according to the Global Business Travel Association. The segment is rebounding following the global financial crisis when companies were forced to tighten their belts and re-examine budgets.

“A lot of the business travel market went away during the recession,” says MOTA deputy director Ellison Thompson. “There was a drop in discretionary spending so people were not travelling in groups like that. It is now coming back. We have had a very good year so far and we think it will continue to grow. This market is extremely important to us and we are paying close attention to it.”

Known in the industry as the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) groups market, business travellers are a cash cow for destinations and the resorts that cater to their needs. Thompson says that these types of visitors can be as much as 40 per cent of a hotel’s business and regularly boost occupancy figures. “It is a great base for the major hotels. They get that convention and meetings business and then the leisure travellers are the cherry on top.”

In Nassau, conference and meeting planners usually look to either Atlantis or newcomer Baha Mar to meet their needs. These large-scale resorts are perfectly suited to accommodating this type of guest, with large and small meeting rooms, catering facilities and plenty of dining, shopping and poolside options to keep attendees busy in their down time. Smaller-scale corporate retreats, groups or meetings can take advantage of SuperClubs Breeze’s all- inclusive group package which includes accommodation, meals, beverages and activities for 20 or more attendees. The deal also comes with a personalized group coordinator and VIP services for group leaders.

Sandals Royal Bahamian has also proved popular with smaller groups, scooping gold at the Meetings and Incentive Travel Industry’s Oscars last year. In 2018, Atlantis welcomed a series of high-profile events including the 36th ICAC Caribbean Conference of Accountants and Caribavia’s Caribbean Aviation Meet-up. The Paradise Island resort hosted one of the most important events in the tourism industry calendar in October when it accommodated the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Tourism Industry Conference. The five-day event brought tourism ministers, industry stakeholders and travel professionals to Nassau to discuss new trends and practices in the sector.

Baha Mar also put the country in the spotlight when it hosted the world’s first crypto event, Polycon, in March 2018.

Grand Bahama has also started branding itself as a tech-friendly destination for business travellers, launching the 2018 Bahamas Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in June at the Grand Lucayan resort. Spreading the business tourist dollar around the islands is important to the Ministry of Tourism and Thompson says even if meetings are based in Nassau, the team on the ground encourage visitors to discover the entire archipelago with excursions and trips in their leisure time.

“We organize proper excursions so they can go out and experience what the destination has to offer,” says Thompson. “We share the business and take them on trips to Grand Bahama and the Family Islands.”

Thompson says that business travellers are a unique breed and catering to this group requires careful attention to detail and a well-planned, thoroughly strategized approach.

“These people know what they want,” he says. “You have to make sure you are efficient and you get back to them in a timely manner. They need to know what facilities we have, whether we have the right meeting rooms; what is available for their accommodation; and the VIP arrangements for top executives. It is also important to have the right ground transportation available.”

Added value
Away from the networking and workshops, visitors want to relax and this leisure time is a good opportunity to introduce guests to Bahamian culture. Businesspeople may be coming to The Bahamas for work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy themselves, or learn something about the country, and the Caribbean, during their stay.

Popular activities for these guests include talks on Bahamian history, Junkanoo demonstrations, cooking classes and straw-plaiting sessions. Most conference planners will use a local destination management company to plan an agenda.

Thompson says this is a crucial way of drumming up future and repeat business, as well as keeping accompanying spouses and family entertained. “Activities are really important. It has to be properly planned and run like clockwork. You do not want to alienate the client. The meeting planning crowd talk among themselves; if they have a bad experience they will tell their colleagues. The more unique you make it, the better their satisfaction and the more memorable their trip.”

Core markets
Most business travellers come to The Bahamas from the country’s core tourist markets–the US, Canada and Europe. MOTA is extremely proactive in generating interest among stakeholders with a busy schedule of roadshows, presentations, industry publicity and a heavy online presence.

Valery Brown-Alce, MOTA’s US senior director of sales and marketing, says: “We pursue board meetings, executive retreats and company meetings of all sizes. Through our digital ad campaigns and online methods in the US, The Bahamas is becoming a consideration for those business travellers who are mixing business with extended leisure trips, which is trending in today’s US travel industry.”

Promotional activities are very much a group effort with a coordinated partnership between MOTA, the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board, hotels and other stakeholders. “Our people stimulate business and incentivize groups to push The Bahamas as an ideal conference destination,” says Thompson. “It is about familiarizing people with what The Bahamas has to offer.”

While Thompson is optimistic about marketing efforts and praises the work of MOTA’s overseas sales staff, he says more can be done, particularly when it comes to airlift. “We are pushing, but there is still a lot more we can do in terms of diving deeper into that business. Airlift is essential. You can’t drive to our islands. We need more airlift to accommodate people.”

Indirect impact
The perks of enticing more business travellers to The Bahamas are far-reaching. While the economic benefits are shared at every level of the tourism trade, from small business owners and taxi operators to the country’s megaresorts, there is also an indirect impact that significantly contributes to the country’s long-term economic outlook.

Attracting high-profile, international events not only boosts The Bahamas’ reputation abroad, it also brings in foreign expertise. In this way, local Bahamian businesses are exposed to cutting-edge knowledge, skills and expertise from professionals around the world.

Making a mark in niche industries such as cryptocurrency and other evolving technology helps put The Bahamas on the map, not only for travellers, but also businesses and investors. Officially announcing the Grand Bahama Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, which brought around 500 companies to Freeport, Minister of State for Grand Bahama Kwasi Thompson said: “The tech conference is designed to attract investors, entrepreneurs and service providers and tech companies from all over the world. Grand Bahama is open for business and we welcome our international business representatives to discover what our island has to offer.”

The MICE travel segment is set to grow, but will face challenges, according to a recent report from consulting firm Fast Future Research. Technology is expected to shape the sector significantly in the years to come, changing how professionals host meetings and interact with each other.

Other trends on the horizon are an emphasis on luxury travel as companies spare no expense, a need for more innovative and creative team-building exercises to engage the younger generation of professionals, and greater competition as tourist-friendly destinations look to diversify into this lucrative market.

Thompson remains optimistic about the niche’s future, and says The Bahamas has the edge over other MICE destinations, thanks to its close proximity to the US, range of diverse cultural experiences and family-friendly atmosphere. “People are looking for a unique experience they can take away with them. They come down to the islands of The Bahamas on business, they have a great time and they come back with their families.”

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